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"Enhancing the Impact: Rethinking the UN Senior Appointment Process"

3 July 2023

By Katja Hemmerich

people in crowd clapping with an overlay of the UN flag

While many governing bodies are slowing down for the summer break, pressure is ramping up on the Ad-Hoc Working Group on the Revitalization of the Work of the General Assembly, and their efforts to strengthen the selection and appointment processes of the Secretary-General and executive heads. They are expected to present their recommendations to the General Assembly in September, which will be the last chance to make changes to the selection process for the next Secretary-General (SG) to be appointed in 2025-26. The UN Association-UK (UNA-UK) and its partners have issued a report with their own recommendations to make selection processes for the SG and Executive Heads more transparent, accountable and inclusive.

More transparent, accountable and inclusive selection processes should, by definition, enhance trust and credibility and the organizations - which is a good thing. Our spotlight considers whether these changes will also alter the outcomes of such selection processes.

Seeking to build on some of the process improvements from the last two SG appointments, the UNA-UK report outlines 10 concrete recommendations that the Ad-Hoc Working Group could consider. This includes, for instance, continuing with the previous open debates by SG candidates in the Security Council and increasing transparency further by replacing the secretive straw polls with formal votes, the results of which should be made public. Other recommendations include requiring candidates for SG or Executive Head position to publicize the amount and source of campaign finances, and have the GA reassert more strongly that consecutive senior leaders should not be from the same country, thereby preventing ringfencing of certain positions for certain countries.

The recommendations are all well-justified and feasible, and implementing even a few of them would considerably enhance the transparency and integrity of UN senior appointments. The report is further complemented by initiatives such as the new monthly newsletter, BlueSmoke and the New York University’s UN Senior Appointments Dashboard. BlueSmoke, published by UNA-UK with PassBlue, tracks individual appointments, highlighting upcoming appointments and anomalies, such as the the fact that only two white men are being proposed for the position of Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues this month. The UN Senior Appointments Dashboard, compiled by the NYU's Center on International Cooperation (CIC) and Center for Global Affairs collates data on senior appointments in the UN Secretariat, agencies funds and programmes, and bodies such as the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ) from 1995 to 2022. Data is visualized and can be disaggregated in different ways, illustrating, for instance, that of the UK’s 70 senior appointees in that timeframe, only 14.3% have been women.

The concrete nature of the UNA-UK recommendations makes it easy to see how these would create further transparency, give a greater number of member states potential access to senior appointments and by extension enhance trust in the appointments process and likely the UN itself. The implication is also that these recommendations will reduce the Western European and Others (WEOG, which also includes Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US) dominance in senior level appointments, which according to the NYU Dashboard, has made up 47.8% of all senior appointments in the UN system between 1995 and 2022.

But is that a definite outcome of these possible changes to senior appointments? Recent academic research has tried to find patterns of determining factors for senior appointments in international organizations. While there are no definitive answers, they do highlight some interesting trends. In examining senior appointments from 69 different international organizations between 1970 and 2017, Dr. Mirko Heinzel shows that when an executive head appointment is voted on by its governing body - which is more transparent than say SG straw polls or other closed door appointment decisions in the Secretariat - nationals of powerful states are still more likely to be selected. This is because these countries also tend to have more human and financial resources to invest in campaigning to convince other member states to vote for their candidate. This is not fundamentally different than the results of a similar study by Drs. Novosad and Werker of Dartmouth and Simon Fraser Universities, who analyzed UN Secretariat senior appointments (which are not voted on) from 1947 to 2007:

We find that democracies and countries that invest in bilateral diplomacy and, to a lesser extent, foreign aid, are the most effective at placing staff in the Secretariat— even after controlling for monetary contributions to the U.N. and the staffing mandate of competence and integrity.”

A slightly different study of UN peacekeeping leadership appointments also illustrates that when states engage more with the UN, in this case as TCCs and Security Council members, diversity of appointments increases.

Countries that are highly integrated into global processes, supply a significant number of troops for a specific mission, and are geographically close to the conflict country have a higher likelihood of providing civilian or military leaders. The three permanent “Western” members of the Security Council, as well as countries that have served multiple terms as elected members, provide a greater number of civilian heads of missions than other countries. Major contributors of troops to all peacekeeping missions and countries that are linguistically proximate to the conflict country have an increased chance of getting the top military post.”

(Kseniya Oksamtyana et al., ‘Leadership Selection in United Nations Peacekeeping', International Studies Quarterly, 2021

Thus, those who hope - or fear - that more transparent senior appointments processes will fundamentally change the balance of power, should manage their expectations. Change can happen, as demonstrated in UN peacekeeping, but it is slow and incremental.

There is however a potential broader implication of more transparent selection processes, especially ones that allow member states to vote for executive heads. As we’ve highlighted previously, a growing body of new research on performance of international organizations demonstrates that leaders who are able to carve out their own political autonomy and push back on the national interests of individual member states are more likely to strengthen the performance of their organizations.

Using formal voting procedures for the selection of executive heads - and publicizing the results - establishes stronger accountability of those senior leaders to the broader constituency of member states who selected them. Undue or disproportionate influence by a few powerful member states - or even the perception thereof - is reduced or possibly eliminated. This more transparent accountability to broader constituencies should, in turn, normalize the idea that senior leaders of international organizations can, and should, rebuff the national agendas of individual member states when they go against the needs or priorities of their organizations. And that makes for better and more effective international organizations.


  • UNICEF's Executive Board will close the the commenting period for the next round of draft country programmes on 3 July at 18:00 EST. The comments will be included in the information provided to the Board at the second regular session, when the it is expected to approve the programmes for the following countries: Papua New Guinea, Angola, Burundi, Lesotho, Malawi, Nicaragua, Benin, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Mauritania, Senegal and Togo.

  • UNWomen's Executive Board receives an informal briefing on UNWomen's work in Sudan on 6 July 2023.

  • On 6 July, UNDP/UNFPA/UNOPS' Executive Board receives its monthly update on UNOPS' efforts to address the management and oversight challenges stemming from the S3i scandal (see our 19 March spotlight for a detailed analysis).


  • Also, on Friday, 30 June, the General Assembly approved the budgets for peacekeeping missions. There was no agreement, however, on the request for $100 million in assessed funding for peacebuilding. Stay tuned, as our spotlight next week will highlight the outcomes of their decision-making.


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